As the parent of a 22-year-old with high-functioning autism, I found it fascinating to see an honest, revealing look into the group therapy sessions and family life of a group of teens and young adults on the spectrum. The story centered around 12 weeks planning for a dance initiated by their therapist, Dr. Emilio Amigo, of Emilio Family Counseling in Columbus, Ohio.
The film captured me right from the beginning, and I was immediately impressed with the counseling skills of Dr. Amigo and his staff, and the way he interacted with the autistic students. The students were so different, but got along well with each other and their therapy workers. I would have been thrilled to have that caliber of therapy for my son when he was a younger teenager. I enjoyed all the characters, but the film helped us to get to know three of the girls particularly well.
Marideth, 16 who had difficulty interacting, even with her own family, preferred to be on her computer and was fascinated with research and facts from the Guinness Book of World Records and other similar books. She had a patient, supportive and dedicated mom, dad and sister. It was so touching to see the whole family encourage her to sit and eat with them, make conversation with her, and most heartwarming of all--her sister Margaret brushing and styling Marideth's hair for her.
Caroline, 19, the third main character, inspired me with her determination and goals. She was attending community college with a goal of going to Japan to work, and was studying the Japanese language. Watching her sitting in a corner of a campus building with her Japanese book perched on a pile of her belongings, diligently reciting Japanese words, made me well up with pride for her, seeing how challenged she was by this. She had a stammering issue, even when speaking in English, so it was amazing to see her practicing Japanese! Again, her parents were crucial to her success, and also shed light on concerns, such as when her mom patiently discussed with Caroline what to do if she didn't feel safe riding the bus, and described how Caroline had waited at a college class for the entire hour not knowing what to do because the classroom location had been moved.
There were other aspects of planning the formal, including asking others to be their "date," practicing how to dance, whether to dance, and making conversation. The idea of asking for dates was confusing or undesirable to some, but a few students did pair up for the dance, including Caroline and Jay.
The girls finally had their hair and makeup done, put on their dresses, and were dropped off at the formal. They enjoyed dancing and singing to the music as much as any other teenagers and young adults would, and Caroline and Jay even held hands and kissed. The movie ended at the formal with the song by Katy Perry, "Firework," which perfectly fit the message of the movie. It's true that people with autism should never feel like a "waste of space." The words are so true for my son Trevor, and for all people on the autism spectrum. We have learned never to underestimate them, because you never know "what the future holds." These young people will definitely "ignite the light."
At the Seattle International Film Festival screening of the film I attended, filmmakers Alexandra Shiva and Bari Perlman discussed the film after the screening, along with Dr. Charles Cowan of Seattle Children's Hospital. Ms. Shiva said her perceptions changed while making the film, and that they didn't really know how many people with autism craved social connections, and how difficult it was for them. Dr. Cowan agreed with this need for social interaction, and noted that adults on the autism spectrum continue to develop throughout adulthood.
I would like to thank HBO for inviting me to the screening, and I urge you to see the film. It premieres on HBO at 9 pm/8c on October 26, and will be available on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO ON DEMAND.